Despite a court victory in April that branded B.C.'s treatment of its unionized teachers and their collectively bargained contracts as unconstitutional, government response to that ruling has been insulting, said B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) president Susan Lambert.
Lambert said that the government's refusal to repeal the legislation the court said was unconstitutional, and its suggested remedy, a program called the Class Organizing Fund, have both had a bad impact on teacher morale.
"Instead of respecting the court's ruling," Lambert told The Tyee by phone from Kamloops, where she was meeting with shop teachers concerned that overcrowding in their classrooms and shops represents a safety risk for their students, "the government has made a proposal that is a slap in the face to all teachers. The predictable result is demoralization, cynicism and anger among B.C. teachers."
Lambert said that the Class Organizing Fund proposal, which had been tabled by the government as a "non-negotiable" remedy for the charter defects identified in the April court ruling, would provide no funding this year to improve classroom size or composition, and only $30 million the next school year, ramping up to only $75 million annually after four years. She contrasted this with the savings the government had realized by increasing class sizes and the numbers of special needs students incorporated into regular classrooms, which she pegged at over $336 million a year. The BCTF wants the government to spend at least that much each year on repairing the damage inflicted by its unilateral stripping of collective agreements in 2002.
Although Lambert was clearly angry about what she sees as the Liberal government's refusal to correct the Charter of Rights and Freedoms breaches identified by the B.C. Supreme Court in April, she said her union had no plans at present to escalate the job action currently underway in public schools, where unionized teachers are refusing to carry out some non-teaching administrative tasks, such as supervising recess activities, meeting with principals and filling out report cards.
Lambert said the job action was designed to create more time for teaching and to put pressure on administrators and school districts to urge the government to restore collective bargaining rights over class size and composition, as required by the April court ruling.
"We are desperate and forced into this job action by a government that is making purely ideological decisions. We hope that B.C.'s education leaders will respond by urging the government to restore our rights and the collectively bargained language they stripped out of our contract in 2002," she said.
'They need to restore our bargaining rights'
On Sept. 13, Education Minister George Abbott said that he did not believe the court ruling had the sweeping implications that Lambert sees in it.
"The decision is many, many pages and contains many things, but it first of all does not oblige us to an outcome in terms of recreating the world as it existed in 2001," Abbott told reporters during a conference call, according to CBC News.
Lambert told The Tyee that her negotiators were scheduled to meet with provincial representatives about these issues this week. Other issues involved in negotiating a new contract for the province's 41,000 unionized teachers are being dealt with in separate, ongoing talks.
"We hope the government will acknowledge the court's ruling and address it by repealing the legislation that has been found to be illegal and in breach of the charter. They need to restore our bargaining rights."
Earlier this month, the judge who made the original ruling against the province in April, Justice Susan Griffin of the B.C. Supreme Court, declined to further clarify or elaborate on her springtime judgment.
The BCTF had suspended its participation in talks with the government about class size while awaiting a response from Justice Griffin.
Government's proposal is 'constructive': Abbott
"B.C. teachers have worked long and hard to patch together a system that is stressed to the breaking point and beyond," Lambert said. "The dedicated, hard-working teachers of this province deserve to see a successful conclusion to these talks."
Sounding more optimistic than Lambert, Minister of Education George Abbott told The Tyee by email that: "The decision from the court appears to clear the way to get back to work on negotiating a solution to the Bill 28 issue."
He added: "I believe we have a responsibility to B.C.'s parents, students and teachers to resolve this issue in a timely fashion in order to move forward with our shared goal -- to lift up what is already a very good education system and make it great.... Government has tabled a constructive proposal worth hundreds of millions of dollars aimed at promoting thoughtful discussion and ultimately result in a negotiated resolution. Of course, this can only happen if both parties continue to work together. The BCTF has indicated that it is prepared to return to the Bill 28 consultations, and we are looking forward to the union returning to this very important process."
When the B.C. Teachers' Federation was formed in 1916, it was not viewed as a trade union and there was no talk of negotiating collective agreements or taking strike action. It was only in 1987 that B.C.'s public school teachers acquired the right to negotiate contracts. For the next six years, negotiations took place on a school district by school district basis, a system that was amended in 1994 to call for province-wide bargaining.
In 2002, as part of a larger set of sweeping attacks on the bargaining rights of public servants in health care and education, the newly elected Liberal government brought in the "contract stripping" legislation that was ruled unconstitutional in Justice Griffin's April ruling. Her judgment in favor of BCTF last spring cited the precedent created in 2007, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down elements of the Liberals' 2002 legislation that affected the rights of unionized health care workers in the province.
The 2007 Supreme Court case was the first time that the nation's top court recognized that collective bargaining was a charter protected right in Canada.
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